Last August I reviewed the twenty-minute short Occurrence at Mills Creek from writer/director Don Swanson (A Wish for Giants, What Was Lost). Now, with help in the writing department from cast members Betsy Lynn George, Joe Fishel, and Ava Psoras it’s been expanded to feature-length. Expanding a short can be a risky undertaking. How well did it work this time?
Clara (Ava Psoras) has just lost her mother to illness. Since her dad Victor (Joe Fishel, Potential Inertia) left years ago it falls on her to take care of her sister Cassandra (Alexa Mechling, Hotel Horror). However, a disagreement between the two leads to Cassandra’s accidental death.
As if this doesn’t leave her with more than enough issues to keep her therapist occupied, Victor dies of some disease as well. Seeing ghosts and doubting her sanity, Clara must face up to her family’s dark history.
Occurrence at Mills Creek uses the events of the short as its starting point and goes on from there. The film initially focuses more on Clara’s mental state. It has us wondering if she’s cracking under the strain of these events. An idea her sessions with Dr. Vicki (Dana Langshaw, Grace Langshaw) actually seem to reinforce.
Unlike the ghosts in most recent films, the ones in Occurrence at Mills Creek aren’t aggressive. They have an air of menace to them, but they’re not the spirits of Grave Encounters or Insidious. This feels more like a film from a much earlier era with its restrained tone and emphasis on the main character’s mental state. The casting of MaLynda Parker (Season of the Witch, The Crazies) in the small but pivotal role of Clara’s Aunt Estelle adds to that feeling.
The result is a film that’s not scary in the sense that viewers will expect. Those who are familiar with how Swanson handled Bigfoot in A Wish for Giants maybe won’t be surprised. But general audiences expecting jump scares and spirits that act like demons will be disappointed.
I’m not saying Occurrence at Mills Creek is dull, it held my attention nicely. And the final act does deliver scares. It’s not elevated horror either. I would actually refer to it as a supernatural film than a horror film. For much of the time, the ghosts are a plot element, but not a source of scares. It’s a more subtle and complex approach than most ghost stories take. It will, however, reward those who appreciate that kind of storytelling.